October 5

We’ve made it to October…the time of year where pumpkins glow on doorsteps and many houses have cobwebs proudly displayed ( for a change—mine always seems to have them lurking). Skeletons and spiders adorn windows and doors and even the air feels a chill as the sun sets and night falls. October always brings with it a sense of mystery, a haunted wind and although this year has been like no other—there are some things about October that never change. 

While many TV channels and web based media sites take the month of October to focus on a somewhat supernatural line up of movies and shows, this year, the FX “regular” American Horror Story is missing from the fall viewing options. A favorite among many of the young ladies here at SDA, October was always a time when students would pop into my office to ask if I’d watched, what I thought about the season, et al. I miss that fun chit chat with the students who were devotees of the show—for the past several Octobers it was always nice to take a minute or two each Thursday to chat about the prior night’s episode. 

That made me wonder, how many of our students have tuned in to the “substitute” show from the creators of AHS—Ratched on Netflix. Featuring AHS icon Sarah Paulson in the title role, the show invents the fictional backstory to one of American culture’s most loathed villains; Nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kessy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I am not certain how many of this current generation are familiar with the book or the iconic film starring Louise Fletcher and Jack Nicholson, but with all the hype Netflix has given this new imagining of its title character and all the push to have it fill in for AHS this October season, I’d think that many of our students have tuned in, for an episode or two.

I watched; although I was not ever a fan of the novel or the film and what struck me watching this time around was a fact more terrifying than all the blood and gore usually present in these stylistic horror shows. I did some reading and research after the third episode and was horrified to learn the following:

40,000 lobotomies were performed in the United States before the practice was halted.

Of that number, 75% of the procedures were performed on women. 

The United States performed more of these surgical procedures than any other country in the world. 

The controversial inventor of the lobotomy, Dr. Walter Freeman, received a Nobel Prize for his work on the procedure. While there have been calls for it to be taken away, it has not been rescinded. 

The practice began in the late 1930’s and although was banned in most countries by the end of the 1950’s, continued to be practiced in the United Sates until the 1970s. Additionally, there were a limited number performed in the United States as late as 1987. 

Among the most notable cases are:

Rose Williams, older sister of playwright Tennessee Williams; she was incapacitated for life. 

Eva Peron, First Lady of Argentina, to “ease anxiety” as she was dying from cancer. 

Rose Marie Kennedy, sister of President John F. Kennedy, and Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy, at the age of 23. It was done by her father, without her mother’s knowledge. She was incapacitated for the rest of her life and it was a secret for many years. 

In this day and age, when we see so many notable women in the forefront of the medical arena, political arena, and we all strive to teach young women to express themselves, to speak up, to be open about their thoughts and feelings, to march to the beat of a different drummer, to spread new ideas and open people’s eyes to new points of view…it’s terrible to realize that less than a half a century ago, this barbaric procedure was being performed on women, mainly as a means to subdue them, in the guise of “easing their suffering” or “calming their nerves.” 

It’s a time period, not too far removed for many of us—and yet another instance of women’s voices being silenced and of statistic data showing that women were more often marked for this type of treatment than men. While, for those of my generation and back might naturally “see” Jack Nicholson when we think of a lobotomy procedure; in this instance and sadly in many more, we have to separate the fiction from the reality. While the face of the lobotomy in the world of film and media might be of the male patient suffering this wretched incapacitation at the hands of a vengeful female nurse…that was not the case for the women in America from the late 1930s into the 80’s. 

And while we can’t look to Netflix to correct the altered media perception of this procedure, at least their show might call upon people to do what I did, and become so put off by the concept that we look to learn the true facts behind the fiction. Once we see those facts, we can’t unsee them. 

Yet again, we are faced with the harsh reality that our voices as women have been silenced in this country for far longer than we often realize and that while we are lucky to now see more and more women in the public world stage, we have to remember always what a struggle it was for them to get there and how there needs to be more ongoing and outward support of female empowerment. We have to continually encourage young women to reach for their dreams and to truly embrace the mindset that they should never let anyone silence their voices.

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